Let’s go back in time, just a few weeks to Aug. 17, 2019 — the second day of this year’s Maha Music Festival, held at Stinson Park in Aksarben Village.
California punk band extraordinaire Oh Sees had just finished a blazing set on the smaller of two stages situated in the west end of the park. Next up, indie-pop duo/comedy troupe Matt and Kim were about to take the main stage as the early evening light gave way to what would be a long night.
I was hungry. In addition to music, the Maha Festival (now in its 11th year) boasted a variety of food and drink vendors, so before I’d left home that evening I figured I’d skip dinner and just eat at the park.
I made my way through the throngs encamped in the heart of Stinson waiting for Matt and Kim to begin their high-octane shtick and headed to the Maha food-and-booze area where I quickly realized I wasn’t going to be eating and/or drinking anything at Maha that Saturday.
The lines for both food and booze weren’t just long — they were ridiculously, amusingly, embarrassingly, futilely long. Five-people-wide wedges of humanity stretched from the beer tent all the way down the street and beyond, intersecting another marathon-long line of drooling concert-goers waiting to buy a plateful of smelly falafel.
But look! No line for Dante’s Pizza. Why? Because Dante had already run out of food and their crew was packing up their shit to leave. Next to them, the BBQ vendor where I bought food the previous night also was long gone. Heck, even the lines for soft drinks stretched on forever.
Too bad I had that beer earlier in the evening because now I’d have to wait in yet another line.
Hungry, thirsty and having to pee, another famous music festival came to mind: Fyre.
I mentioned Fyre to a pal I found waiting in one of the lines. He laughed and said, “You can’t compare this to Fyre. Maha actually has performances.”
He was right. This was no Fyre Fest, but it was painfully obvious that Saturday night — the sell-out night, the night of Lizzo — Maha had outgrown Stinson Park. Or at least the organizers hadn’t quite thought through what it would take to support a crowd of 10,000 people. It was the first time in my Maha history — and I’ve been to all of them beginning with year one down at Lewis & Clark Landing — that I felt the organizers were overwhelmed and unprepared.
On the other hand, Friday night at this year’s Maha Festival was sheer perfection. Though I had purchased VIP tickets, I still used the food court to fetch dinner (because, unlike in years’ past, there was no food in the VIP tent). Lines for beer and BBQ were at most two-people deep. Maha’s new pay bracelet system worked like a jiff. Rows of port-a-johns welcomed me with green “vacant” signs and a gentle whiff of rose-scented musk.
The Saturday night sell-out was something of a lucky fluke. Maha captured lightning in a bottle when they booked Lizzo months before the R&B star exploded nationally with the release of a critically acclaimed new album. Overnight, her face was on magazine covers and her music was heard on a million TV commercials selling everything from smart phones to SUVs. By contrast, the Courtney Barnett/Jenny Lewis-headlined Friday night festival I’d guestimate drew about half as many people, and the difference in comfort level was like night and day.
The bottom line: If Maha wants to meet or exceed that Saturday night crowd size, they’re going to have to bring in more and better vendors — double what they had on Lizzo night.
In fact, they’ll likely have to move the festival to a larger space, if only to better control the crowd. I noticed while sitting on the small stage during the Lizzo concert that I’d have to walk all the way around the edge of the entire park if I wanted to get to the VIP tents — there was no path to cut through the enormous, densely packed crowd.
And while sight lines were fine, Lizzo was a glowing dot in her fluorescent onesie when viewed from the far end of the park. No doubt giant monitors similar to those used at other large festivals would be needed at the next sell-out. Suddenly, you’re not watching a concert anymore, you’re watching TV.
Does the festival really need to attract a Lizzo-sized audience to be deemed “successful”? Maha is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization “focused on bringing people together,” according to its online mission statement. I don’t see anything about bringing 10,000 people together. And I’ve been told their main financial support comes from sponsors, not ticket sales.
Maha always has skirted a fine line between booking indie bands and pop acts. Lizzo was a tipping point into the latter category. Only a very small handful of indie performers can draw a Lizzo-sized crowd. And let’s face it, the odds of replicating the Lizzo booking — signing a mid-level act before it breaks big — is remote at best (unless the festival’s booker, One Percent Productions, has a crystal ball stashed somewhere in the bowels of The Waiting Room).
As an indie music fan, my biggest fear is Maha will get greedy and shift to booking more mainstream pop acts, similar to the dreck booked at CHI, all in an effort to attract bigger crowds, because bigger is always better, right?
They may sell more tickets, but Maha will lose the charm and heart that make it a unique annual concert experience. The organization is standing at a crossroads where it has to decide what it wants to be. I hope it makes the right choice.
Over The Edge is a monthly column by The Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.